This is a good book this: Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho. I read somewhere that Coelho supposedly writes “philosophy for horoscope readers” and that he himself says he writes “fairy tales for adults”. So be it. Give me fairy tales every day.
His subject – the human condition under the sentence of death – and the setting – an insane asylum in Slovenia – is part of a long tradition that all the big guns of European literature have explored. People like Camus, Thomas Mann, Solzhenitsyn, Günter Grass and many others have covered similar ground and often with far less clarity, wit and insight than Coelho.
Actually, to say “the human condition under the sentence of death” is a tautology. There is no human condition without the prospect of death, and this is Coelho’s premise. In the everyday view, we say birth gives life. In the philosophical view, it is death that gives life.
The main protagonist is Veronika, a young woman in her early 20s living in Ljubljana who decides one Sunday afternoon to end her life (she doesn’t say about the day I think, but I feel sure it’s a Sunday afternoon). She’s pretty, smart, with a job in a library, but life is just the same day over and over again, and the long, predictable future stretches out before her.
One day, I’ll get tired of hearing [her mother] constantly repeating the same things, and to please her I’ll marry a man whom I oblige myself to love. He and I will end up finding a way of dreaming of a future together: a house in the country, children, our children’s future. We’ll make love often in the first year, less in the second, and after the third year, people perhaps think about sex only once a fortnight and transform that thought into action only once a month. Even worse, we’ll barely talk. I’ll force myself to accept the situation, and I’ll wonder what’s wrong with me, because he no longer takes any interest in me, ignores me, and does nothing but talk about his friends … When the marriage is just about to fall apart, I’ll get pregnant. We’ll have a child, feel closer to each other for a while, and then the situation will go back to what it was before. I’ll begin to put on weight … At that point, I’ll take those magic pills that stop you feeling depressed, then I’ll have a few more children … I’ll tell everyone that the children are my reason for living … People will always consider us a happy couple, and no one will know how much solitude, bitterness and resignation lies beneath …
She takes an overdose of tranquillisers, cleans her room, brushes her teeth and lays down to wait for death. To pass the time she reads a magazine article and gets annoyed by one of those arch questions journalists begin their articles with. She feels queasy. She loses consciousness. Fade out.
She awakes in Villete, a mental asylum on the outskirts of the town. After some days going in and out of consciousness, she recovers and begins to take note of her surroundings and fellow inmates. She meets Zedka, a woman in her 30s who’s in for depression, Mari, a lawyer in her 60s whose panic attacks are now controlled by medication but who has elected to stay on in Villete because she fears life outside; and Eduard, a young schizophrenic who’s apparently mute.
She also meets Dr Igor, the director, who tells her what’s happened. The drugs she took during her suicide attempt have damaged her heart and she will not live beyond five days, a week at most. Until that time, he says, she will receive daily injections to assist her, but the end is not in doubt.
The remainder of the book is about Veronika’s accommodation to the prospect of her impending death, what she discovers about herself and life, and the impact of her imminent death on the other inmates. Chief among her discoveries is that her life has been given over to ensuring nothing ever changes (even while ostensibly reviling this very sameness) and that she has been consumed by imagining what other people think of her. There’s a particularly brilliant passage in which she plays the piano for the moon, and in doing so discovers the meaning of self-expression.
The book is not at all morbid. It’s funny, light and potent, and at the end there’s a terrific twist, for Dr Igor has a hypothesis about the substance he calls Vitriol, or Bitterness, and it turns out he’s been experimenting …
I highly recommend it for all human beings, especially those who dream of really living.